If anyone thought the support act had delusions of grandeur, they can think again. There is no hubris from Brendon McCullum as his New Zealand team start their tour of England. He knows that, as captain of the team currently rated No. 8 in the Test rankings and with a record of five losses from their last six Tests in England, they are not in a position to make demands. He knows the Test series against England will be viewed, by many, as an aperitif before the Ashes. And he has no complaints.

"It hurts but it's a fair ranking," McCullum said as he watched his side in action on the first day of their tour match against Derbyshire. "You've got to earn the right for a five Test series in England, just as you've got to earn the right to play a Boxing Day Test at The MCG or to play against India at Eden Gardens. We've got to earn that right and, if we are realistic, we haven't.

"We're not one of the best powerhouses of world cricket. We're not one a consistently performing international team worthy of those occasions at this stage. That is not to say we are not wanting to be there or that is not the goal for this group. As a group we want to be playing in the top billing events and to do that we need to perform better and that is certainly a goal of this team."

McCullum feels it is an achievable goal, too. The potential in their batting, in particular, may be as high as any New Zealand team in history, while they out-bowled a much-vaunted England attack in the recent series in England. McCullum feels his side have the potential to be better even than the New Zealand side of the 1980s containing the likes of Martin Crowe and Richard Hadlee.

"It's hard to compare eras," McCullum said. "The team of the early 1980s achieved some excellent things, but these guys are excellent players and have the potential to be equal if not better than what they were."

And that's even before the return of Jesse Ryder who, barely a month after he was assaulted, is well on the road to recovery despite the lung damage inflicted in the attack. "Jesse's gone to the gym for the first time," McCullum said, before smiling. "Not the first time ever. I spoke to him before went to India and he's getting there. He's getting there."

McCullum feels the change in New Zealand's fortunes came when they were thrashed by South Africa who won both Tests in the series by vast margins - an innings and 27 runs and then an innings and 193 runs - that McCullum feels it was a clear case of the darkest hour coming before the dawn and felt the improvements were obvious in the series against England.

"South Africa gave us a chance to strip things right back," he said. "They exposed us so greatly, it meant we had to go back to the drawing board and work out what our style of cricket was going to be.

"We looked at what our strengths are and what are the tweaks we need to make. We made a few immediate changes, changed the balance of our line-up by playing six batters and having some aggressive players in the middle order so you free up your top order a little bit. We went with four bowlers, knowing three of those are going to have to bowl reasonably long spells.

"I thought we deserved to win the series against England. The guys were absolutely heartbroken by not getting across the line. But it was one of those things; it was a gripping series. From where we were at the start of that series, especially after a tough South African tour, to where we sat at the end, we could take an immense amount of pride in the characteristics that we showed on the field.

"I don't think England underestimated us. But they probably didn't expect us to play as well as we did. I don't think they were complacent. I like to think we put them under a lot of pressure and that showed some weaknesses in their line-up. It gave us confidence and probably ate away a little bit at the confidence they had when they arrived on our shores."

McCullum dismisses any chance of keeping wicket in the Test series - "absolutely not," he said - or remaining in England after the Champions Trophy to play county cricket - "No, no, no," he said, a little too effusively. "I have two months off at the end of this series and I'm going to put a bit of time and energy back into the family."

But McCullum could be forgiven some weariness. He has played in every one of New Zealand's last 75 Tests and, as a key man in their limited-overs teams, carries a heavy burden that captaincy can only have increased.

"My desire and love for the game is as strong as it has ever been," he said. "I have some responsibilities which really drive that, too. But physically, as we saw in the last series, I'm maybe not as bullet proof as what you may think when you're younger. So I have to make sure I do the right things there, too, but I'm certainly enjoying my cricket and this is an exciting time for us as a group, too, and it would be great to be a pivotal member of that over the next couple of years."

Let there be no doubting his priorities, though. Asked whether he would rather captain his side to Champions Trophy victory or a Test series victory over England, he was adamant: "To me Test cricket is still the pinnacle of the game," he said "So to achieve a Test series win on the back of the series we've just had would be the biggest win that I've been involved in my time with New Zealand cricket."